Lest We Forget


Compiled by Zainul Akmal Zaini

Oil discoverer returns, after a 40-year break

MARCH 31, 1979 – It was a long time between drilling when Bert Fountain returned to Brunei last week and spudded in a new well for Shell. Forty years ago this month, in fact.

For when he left here way back in 1939, it was goodbye to working on the rigs and hello to the administration side of the business.

But in the years that followed, he didn’t forget his Brunei drilling days – and the niche they gave him in Borneo’s oil history.

He was one of the original six drillers who brought in the first well of the Seria field, in early 1929. And he is the only survivor of the team.

So when Shell began thinking of how it could suitably mark the 50th anniversary of that discovery, it came up with the idea of having Fountain, now 77, back to where he helped start Brunei on the road to its oil fortunes.

Thus it was that on Thursday of last week, he donned a hard hat and stepped up to take charge of drilling brake on Brunei Shell’s light land rig as well number 646 was started in the field.

With his return, Fountain also took the opportunity of correcting a small point of oil history.

It is recorded that drilling of well number one started in July, 1928, and struck oil at 974 feet the following April.

That’s not quite correct, said Fountain, for what has been overlooked is that before the oil there was a blowout, when a gas pocket was hit.

This blew out everything, and left the derrick badly damaged. A few days later, while listening down the hole, the drillers hear the “pop, popping” sound of oil seeping in. Well number one had arrived.

Fountain said similar blowouts followed (“they were a regular feature”) with subsequent early holes, in an era when drilling was fraught with difficulties – not the least of which was using the cable method, which virtually meant hammering the drilling bit through the ground.

That’s a tremendous difference from today when it’s all push-button control and the boss can see what’s happening on instruments in his office, he added.

Bert Fountain chats with Peter Everett, Brunei Shell’s new Managing Director, about the old days of drilling
Bert Fountain gets well number 646 spudded in

The change in drilling techniques is one thing – but for Fountain the more startling change is in the appearance of Brunei itself.

He originally came out from Britain to Borneo in 1924 as a drilling trainee on the Miri field, switching to the Seria area in 1928.

He arrived to a place of hardly any houses, a few Kuala Belait shops, jungle everywhere, the beach the solitary “road” (and then only at low tide) and no ferry across the Belait River – you had to be rowed.

“There was very little of anything,” Fountain recalled. And that “very little” included going without the numerous comforts and companionship of home. For instance, housing for the young driller was a 20 square foot attap-roofed kajang hut, “with rickety steps”.

Still, he admitted that a BND3 a day jungle allowance, paid in Straits dollars, did compensate for the privations.

As it was the start of the oil years, the staff was small. Fountain said that when he came, there was a storekeeper and a man in charge of the Kuala Belait office, two drillers in Seria, and two others working on core drilling and geological survey work under an American supervisor at Anduki.

Compare this with today’s some 3,200 employees, with nearly 400 of them expats.

But the discovery of oil brought the changes, and when Fountain left, some better-type bungalow housing had been provided, along with other facilities.

Like a clubhouse on the beach near the mouth of the Belait, boasting a billiards and tennis court.

There was also a nine-hole golf course of sorts (greens made of oil sand), which boasted a 10 square foot “clubhouse”.

He remembered that it was always a big highlight making a trip to Bandar Seri Begawan (again, via the beach), especially to join Bruneians in Hari Raya celebrations. There was also a fascination for Kampong Ayer, “the houses on the lake”.

When he left, there were also three rotary rigs drilling Seria and a pipeline to Lutong. Oilfield life was becoming civilised.

After Brunei, he went on home leave, and then was supposed to do a year’s tour in Venezuela and the United States before returning here.

He never made it, for he arrived in Venezuela the day World War II broke out, staying there and in the United States as a visitor before finally going to Trinidad.

He later returned to Venezuela, where he retired from Shell in 1955.

He was subsequently in charge of an oil terminal in London until he finally retired in 1967.

He said, “Although I never got back to Brunei, I always had a nostalgia for it, because I was here at the initiation of the field.

“I had no nostalgia for the other places. I used to read a lot about Shell’s progress in Brunei. And I was kept in touch by friends who came out here.” – Lindsay Brinsdon